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Tea Grading: SFTGFOP…WTF?

I remember well the first time I encountered the strange and seemingly endless set of letters at the end of many black teas. I was working my first week at a busy coffee bar (a micro-roaster that also specialized in fine teas) and kept needing to look back at the menu to ring in prices for customers. Each time I had to ring in one of the Indian or Sri Lankan teas, I had to make myself look past the gradation letters for the price, so that I did not ring in the letters “FOP” instead of the more orthodox “number” one expects for a price.

After time I started asking around, and began to learn of the history and definitions associates with each letter- and wow, there are a lot of them. But don’t worry- we can go over them slowly and methodically. much like the tea masters who determined them.

First- one thing to know is that these grading letters are associated almost always with non-Chinese teas. Though they may have some familiarity in China with such systems, they are not really a practice there. This system is used primarily for teas from India, Sri Lanka and to some extent Africa, and solely for black teas. And the system was designed for communicating to western consumers and buyers, so it it is good to know some of the reasons behind the particular letters and what they mean for the individual consumer.

So…let us begin with the first grade we are concerned with:

OP: This stands for Orange Pekoe. Pekoe refers to the tea bud and the two leaves associated with that terminal tea bud. The grading system refers to those terminal buds and leaves which are able to be sorted our by size. In general, Pekoe refers to any medium grade black tea of a particular size. Orange has some uncertainty as far as it’s origin and inclusion in the system. there are two schools of thought here: One is that Orange refers to the House of Orange-Nasau– a highly respected aristocratic family in the Dutch republic during the rise of the Dutch East India Company’s control of tea leaf import into Europe. Annother consideration is that Orange refers to the color of the freshly brewed black tea leaves. Either way we are stuck with it as a vestige, since it does not apply to either shape, size for any of the other following elements of grading.

  • OP1—slightly delicate, long, wiry leaf with the light liquor
  • OPA—bold, long leaf tea which ranges from tightly wound to almost open
  • OP—main grade, in the middle between OP1 and OPA, can consist of long wiry leaf without tips
  • OP Superior—primarily from Indonesia, similar to OP
  • Flowery OP—high-quality tea with a long leaf and few tips, considered the second grade in Assam, Dooars, and Bangladesh teas, but the first grade in China
  • F OP1—as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the FOP classification
  • Golden Flowery OP1—higher proportion of tip than FOP top grade in Milima and Marinyn regions, uncommon in Assam and Darjeeling
  • Tippy Golden F OP—the highest proportion of tip, main grade in Darjeeling and Assam
  • TGF OP1—as above, but with only the highest quality leaves in the TGFOP classification
  • Finest TGF OP—highest quality grade (Note: “Special” is occasionally substituted for “Finest”, with a number 1 at the end to indicate the very finest), often hand processed and produced at only the best plantations, roughly one quarter tips
  • SFTGFOP(1)—sometimes used to indicate the very finest

The above list was found on Wikipedia.

There are also lists of grading for those types of tea leaf which fall below OP- both the “Broken Orange Pekoe” varieties and the Fannings or Dust varieties often found in mass produces tea bags.

A good thing to remember is that though these grades help us understand the observable qualities for leaves when compared to each-other, they do not really have a direct connection to the Quality of the tea you will drink. These really are ways to describe TYPES of tea, and QUALITY is up to you- the drinker. Which is empowering. I was very intimidated by all the fancy letters this until I learned this simple truth- and I hope you too will feel similarly empowered to go out and drink great teas regardless of the letters!

That being said- our new Darjeeling SFTGFOP Risheehat Estate is AMAZING!!! ha….